Naturalism Defeated? Chapter 1

William Ramsey is the first to offer a rebuttal to Plantinga’s EAAN. While the bulk of his response focuses on Plantinga’s interpretation of evolutionary epistemology, he begins by offering an externalist semantics where not only is the structure of our beliefs visible to natural selection, but the content of our beliefs is visible to natural selection. You’ll remember that Plantinga’s major step in this argument is the plausibility of semantic epiphenomenalism, where SE roughly means that the content of our beliefs rides on top of the structure. Most importantly, this means that a belief’s content doesn’t stand in a causal relation with the world in such a way that could make it visible to the mechanisms of contemporary evolutionary theory (whether or not genetic drift could is another question, and probably an implausible suggestion). Ramsey suggests, though, that the content of our beliefs is just as visible to natural selection as structure is, and illustrates this with a map analogy:

Suppose ten individuals are given ten different maps, only one of which provides an accurate route to buried treasure. If we want to explain the behavior of any given individual (including the one with the right map) then all we need to appeal to are the actual directions- the instructions and arrows and such- physically displayed on that individual’s map. The intrinsic features of the map are the causally relecant properties that produce the behavior in question, and the accuracy or inaccuracy of any given map would be, by and large, irrelevant. But now suppose that instead of explaining the actual behaviors of the treasure hunters, we want to know why the behavior of one hunter is of a certain sort- namely, of the sort that actually succeeds in finding the treasure. Clearly then it would be appropriate to appeal to the further fact that the lucky hunter’s map is the accurate one. That is, if we want to explain how one hunter actually manages to find the treasure, the accuracy of his map becomes the causally salient feature- it is what makes it the case that this particular hunter succeeds while the others fail. Indeed, if finding the treasure was in some way critical for survival, it would be the feature of the map that makes it the case that this hunter survives while others do not.
ND, p. 17.

So the content of a belief can supervene on, say, the structure of the world and our brain and the relation between them. Nevertheless, such an irreducible state such as being true can indeed be relevant with respect to explanation. So in the same sense that camouflage can be visible to natural selection (where the parts, like neurons, don’t explain it’s evolutionary worthiness), content is visible to natural selection. Essentially, I take Ramsey to simply deny Plantinga the possibility of his wedge between the structure and the content of belief. He is an externalist in the sense that beliefs aren’t in the brain, or rather, neuronal, but are relations that “reach out” and grab something in the outside world.

Ramsey’s second thrust of his essay is that Plantinga simply hasn’t provided a very good defeater for evolutionary reliabilism- the view that evolutionary processes shape our cognitive mechanisms. For one, it just seems prima facie unlikely that evolution could provide faculties that got things wrong most of the time while still proving adaptive. A point here that should probably be made clear is that Ramsey doesn’t think that evolution really selects beliefs. This is the wrong level of selection, and evolutionary forces select belief-forming mechanisms instead, which allows for error but, in a generalized analysis, tends to be conducive to truth. Without an account or explanation of those mechanisms (rather than ad hoc, highly complex Paul/tiger cases), it seems that Plantinga’s point is much weaker. Further, if we generalize Paul’s behavior with the tiger and make inferences to his belief-forming capacities, then it is a clear maladaption. Over time, his belief- or rather, the cognitive structure that produces such a belief- that petting tigers will prove destructive to his fitness.

Lastly, Ramsey goes on the offensive. Everyone realizes that there are mistakes in our inferential systems. Evolutionary reliabilism has a simple account for why this is so. But can theism provide such an account?


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